transition planning

Growth assured, Democracy Prep plans for a founder-less future

Superintendent Seth Andrew answers questions after the Democracy Prep admissions lottery event earlier this year.

When the first crop of seniors at Democracy Prep Charter High School graduates next June, they won’t be alone. The founder of the school’s network of charter schools will be exiting alongside them.

Seth Andrew, the founder and superintendent of the six-school network, has spent the last week making hundreds of phone calls to friends and professional contacts to let them know that he will be stepping down in June, seven years after launching a middle school steeped in civic values.

Andrew’s decision comes weeks after the U.S. Department of Education announced that Democracy Prep Public Schools would be one of two charter school networks to get federal funding to expand. Democracy Prep will get $9.1 million over five years to open 15 new schools in Harlem; Camden, N.J.; and potentially beyond.

Andrew said the award made him confident that he could depart without destabilizing Democracy Prep — and relieved that the network would be able to grow using only public funds, a value to the network.

“The organization is incredibly healthy,” he said today, speaking by phone from Boston, where he had been meeting with Building Excellent Schools, the nonprofit that helped him start up his first school a decade ago. “This is the time to do a transition.”

Andrew opened his flagship middle school, Democracy Prep Charter School, in 2006 with a $30,000 grant from the city’s Center for Charter School Excellence (now named the New York City Charter School Center). He expanded to a high school in 2009 to accommodate his graduating eighth-graders and has since opened three more middle schools.

Last year, Andrew was granted permission to acquire a charter to run a failing elementary school, Harlem Day Charter School. Mayor Bloomberg declared the takeover a success last spring, in the process comparing Andrew to Jeremy Lin, a basketball player who was then on a streak with the Knicks.

Accelerating its expansion plans doesn’t mean that Democracy Prep is giving up on the idea of taking over struggling schools, Andrew said. The network’s application for the federal grant explicitly asked for permission to create new schools and take over existing ones, he said, adding that conversations are underway in the city and elsewhere about both strategies.

Andrew will help engineer the first round of new schools because he will continue to run Democracy Prep until the end of the school year while the school’s board searches for his replacement. Using the consulting firm Bellwether Education Partners for support, the board members will look across the country and at “some very strong internal candidates,” he said today, hours before sending a mass email announcing his impending departure.

A graduate of the Bronx High School of Science who taught briefly in Massachusetts and Korea early in his career, Andrew said he doesn’t know what he will be doing a year from now — only that he will still be running his fledgling parent advocacy group, Democracy Builders, and working toward the same goal that motivated him to start Democracy Prep.

“My life’s work is truly high quality education for every child in the world,” he said. “I am considering everything and there are certainly lots of different ways and different places to make impact.”

But he said there are two areas of education policy that he thinks need particular attention right now. The first is the “talent pipeline” that brings teachers and principals to schools. Too often, he said, policy makers have focused on rules about firing bad teachers, when they should be thinking more about how to recruit and create great ones.

“There’s no way to get rid of teachers and just think that fixes schools,” Andrew said.

The other is the concept that Neerav Kingsland, a New Orleans charter school advocate, calls “relinquishment.” Rather than centralize control, Kingsland argues, superintendents should let families and schools make decisions for themselves, while still holding schools accountable for their performance.

“I’m interested in being disruptive and trying to push new boundaries in those fields,” Andrew said today.

Within the city’s guarded charter school sector, Andrew stands out for more than his ubiquitous yellow Democracy Prep hat. He and Democracy Prep’s board made a decision to tie his salary to the Department of Education’s salary structure for a similar position, even as some charter school operators earned salaries twice as high. They also avoided allowing the network’s schools to become dependent on private fundraising, an essential support for some charter schools.

And while he eagerly touts his schools’ academic accomplishments, he sometimes sounds even more excited about their civic engagement. He required students to attend and participate in civic events, and sent them out to canvass the Harlem community to vote on Election Day. Four Democracy Prep students attended the Democratic National Convention with him last month.

“I have great respect for the work he’s done in Harlem and the civic engagement he’s instilled in every Democracy Prep student,” said Mona Davids, a former charter school parent who has been a vocal critic of some charter school practices. She said Andrew was among the first charter leaders she met when she started a charter school parent advocacy group in 2009.

Davids said she regularly fought with Andrew because she said he refused to start a parent association at the school. “We just agree to disagree on that.”

After drawing the spotlight to himself this week, Andrew said he hopes attention will soon shift to the network of schools he has spent developing for the better part of his career so far.

He added, “Democracy Prep should not be about me, it should be about vision and implementation. Right now Democracy Prep and Seth are kind of synonymous, and that’s an unhealthy thing.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”